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What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry Paperback – February 28, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Since much of the research behind the development of the personal computer was conducted in 1960s California, it might seem obvious that the scientists were influenced by the cultural upheavals going on outside the lab. Very few people outside the computing scene, however, have connected the dots before Markoff's lively account. He shows how almost every feature of today's home computers, from the graphical interface to the mouse control, can be traced to two Stanford research facilities that were completely immersed in the counterculture. Crackling profiles of figures like Fred Moore (a pioneering pacifist and antiwar activist who tried to build political bridges through his work in digital connectivity) and Doug Engelbart (a research director who was driven by the drug-fueled vision that digital computers could augment human memory and performance) telescope the era and the ways its earnest idealism fueled a passion for a computing society. The combustive combination of radical politics and technological ambition is laid out so convincingly, in fact, that it's mildly disappointing when, in the closing pages, Markoff attaches momentous significance to a confrontation between the freewheeling Californian computer culture and a young Bill Gates only to bring the story to an abrupt halt. Hopefully, he's already started work on the sequel. Agent, John Brockman.(Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Inside Flap
Thanks to the cunning of history and the wondrous strangeness of Northern California, the utopian counterculture, psychedelic drugs, military hardware and antimilitary software were tangled together inextricably in the prehistory of the personal computer. Full of interesting details about weird but not arbitrary connections, John Markoff's book tells one of the oddest--because truest--of California tales and thereby helps illuminate the still unsettled legacy of the Sixties.
--Todd Gitlin, author of Media Unlimited and The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The book attempts to tie together nerdie engineers with counterculture LSD druggies with free love types with antiwar activists with students with hackers and the mix is considerably hard to pull off, even for a writer as accomplished as Markoff. In fact, I would say that he fails at it. Still, he tries, yes, he does. He tries a chronological approach to things and soon we have computer science engineers dropping acid in what will become Silicon Valley, leading to who knows what kinds of creativity. But Markoff really concentrates this book on two or three people: Doug Engelbart and his Augmented Human Intelligence Research Center at SRI (Stanford Research Institute) and John McCarthy’s SAIL (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory). Another important figure is Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog. Finally, there was programmer extraordinaire, Alan Kay.
Engelbart had a vision and he pulled in people to create his vision. He envisioned a computer — this was the 1960s — that would augment how people thought and what they did. McCarthy also envisioned a computerized world, albeit a slightly different one. Brand envisioned a computer for every person, while Kay envisioned small computers — laptops of today — that were so easy to use, that small children could be taught to use them. And these men all pulled it off!
Engelbart plays such a large role in the book, that it’s nearly all about him, and I think that does the book a bit of a disservice. Nonetheless, it’s he who creates the mouse to use with a display and keyboard in the late ’60s. He was funded largely by ARPA and was critical in the development of the ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.
At some point, the book shifts to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Reserch Center), the infamous Xerox research facility that had the most brilliant geniuses of the twentieth century under one roof and who literally did invent the personal computer as we know it to be. This was before Steve Wozniak and his famous claim that he invented the personal computer. Under Bob Taylor At PARC, Kay and the others who had shifted over there invented a graphical user interface, an operating system, a text editor (word processor), programming language, software, Ethernet for networking, a mouse, display, keyboard, audio, and a laser printer, which would be the only thing Xerox would go on to make money with. Xerox was so stupid, they never realized what they had in hand and they could have owned the world, but they didn’t. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Markoff weaves various stories of people like Fred Moore throughout the book, attempting to capture the counterculture spirit, but it seemed a little lost on me. Most of the techies weren’t overly political. Most avoided Vietnam by working in a research facility that did weapons research (SRI). Most dropped acid at some point, but very few seemed to make that a lifestyle choice. I thought it was an interesting book, as the topic is personally interesting to me, but it wasn’t the most cohesively written book and I would have expected a little more from a writer of Markoff’s stature. Still, four solid stars and recommended.
On Route 128, where I grew up, the dominant myth is that the computer and the Internet developed out of research funded by the military and the government, motivated by the goals of miniaturization for rocketry, nuclear and space weapons, and satellite surveillance.
For the last 20 years, I've lived on the fringe of Silicon Valley. Here, there's a different creation myth of personal computers and the Internet that idolizes the heroes of entrepreneurial capitalism.
"Both stories are true, but they are both incomplete," says longtime New York Times Silicon valley correspondent John Markoff at the start of his new work of historical correction, "What the Dormouse Said: How the 60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry".
As Markoff tells it, many of the people working in both academic and corporate computing labs from the 1950's through the 1970's were doing so specifically to avoid the draft.
Many of those pioneering researchers were actively exploring the enhancement of human intelligence both through computing and through mind-altering drugs, spiritual inquiry, sexual experimentation, and other aspects of the political and social counterculture.
Many of the most critical contributions to what would eventually become the personal computer industry were made by people motivated not by money, but by a vision of the potential for computers to serve people as tools for networking, community building, and peacemaking.
Myths matter. Are computer networks top-down tools of centralized government and corporate power, or participatory tools for grassroots empowerment, information democracy, and independent citizen journalism?
Markoff admits to having accepted the standard myths. But once he started hearing anecdotes that made him aware of the gaps in his view of high-tech history, he set out to tell the world the missing parts of the story: "One of Silicon Valley's supreme ironies [is] that an itinerant activist who rejected material wealth ... ended up lighting the spark of what became the 'largest legal; accumulation of wealth in the 20th century'.... Indeed [Fred] Moore would also become the unrecognized patron saint of the open-source software movement."
In 1959, as a freshman at Berkeley, Fred Moore sent a letter to the attorney general informing him of his refusal to register for the draft. A few weeks later he went on a solo sit-in hunger strike on the steps of Sproul Hall against compulsory ROTC training and drills. Later, it would be recognized as one of the key precursors to the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus five years later.
Fred returned to Berkeley only after U.C. made ROTC voluntary, but eventually he left and joined the Quebec-Guantanamo Walk for Peace. It was the first in a lifetime of peace walks on several continents. Like many other draft resisters awaiting prosecution, he lived for a time at the New England Community for Non-Violent Action (CNVA) farm in Voluntown, CT. In 1965, still well before the start of mass organizing for draft resistance, he was convicted of refusal to register and sent to the federal prison camp in Allenwood, PA, for 17 months.
Eventually Fred and his older daughter Irene -- whom he raised as a single father -- made their way, in the early 1970's, to the area near Stanford University that would come to be known as Silicon Valley. There Fred got involved in community networking and educational projects associated with the Whole Earth Catalog and its founder, Stewart Brand.
Brand would later found the pioneering computer network, still active today, "The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link", the WELL, and would be one of the first to try to call public attention to the role of the counterculture in computer history with an essay in Time, "We Owe it All to the Hippies: The Real Legacy of the Sixties Generation is the Computer Revolution".
Bringing together the mantra of the Whole Earth Catalog, "Access to Tools," with the emerging vision of accessible, affordable, interactive computers, Fred Moore and Free Speech Movement veteran Lee Felsenstein organized the Homebrew Computer Club as an anarchistic expression of the "Rainbow Family" value they placed on networking and sharing in the service of social change.
The rest, as they say, is history. Dozens of pioneering personal computer companies, including Apple Computer, would grow out of the small Homebrew community. Lee Felsenstein himself would found Osborne Computer and make the first portable computers.
I met Fred long after all this, in the early 1980's, through the draft registration resistance movement. Many older anti-draft activists tried to impose on my then younger generation their own interpretations of what we should do, and why. Fred was one of relatively few who supported our efforts to organize ourselves. Living his commitment to youth liberation to the fullest, Fred turned the newspaper he had helped build, Resistance News, over to a group of younger resisters, then walked away. He continued to give us his full support even as we changed the paper in ways he sometimes disapproved of.
Fred's technology work was a consistent and explicit expression of his politics. Later in life, he worked on appropriate technology projects for the global South, including more efficient wood-burning cook stoves and human-pulled carts.
He demonstrated these tools on his own peace walks. In the ultimate irony for a peace walker, Fred died in a car crash in 1997.
Like many organizers and networkers, Fred Moore did more to connect others with similar interests, and facilitate others' accomplishments, than to put himself in the spotlight. In theory, our movements celebrate cooperation and sharing. But too often, we fail to recognize those who make special contributions in networking and facilitation.
John Markoff clearly wasn't part of the movement he describes, and as an outsider he focuses on some people and events that his circle of informants told him about, while missing others. For example, he almost totally overlooks the MIT techno-Deadhead community of leftist hackers. But his book is a valuable attempt to capture a forgotten piece of movement history, and in many ways a movement victory: today a blogger with $10 a month to spend on Web hosting can reach as many people, all over the world, as the largest alternative magazine of the 1960's.
A documentary film, Walking Rainbow: Fred Moore Remembered has recently been completed by filmmaker Markley Morris.
"What the Dormouse Said: How the 60's Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry" by John Markoff. Viking, 336 pp, 2005. Reviewed by Edward Hasbrouck, who is the child of a computer program (at least acording to his birth certificate, which says: "Father's occupation: computer program.") Convicted in Boston for organizing resistance to draft registration, he spent 6 months in a federal prison camp in 1984-1985. Shortly afterwards, he moved to San Francisco to take over from Fred Moore as one of the editors of Resistance News. His Web site of draft resistance information is at <[...]>.
(This review was first published in Peacework magazine.)
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Great insight into the industry and how everything unfolded.